The Skull Gang Foraging Club: Mushrooms are Tops
It was fucking cold. The skies, for so long wet and soft with insulating clouds, shone blue. We had wanted to be in the woods early, to get a jump on the rest of the peasants, but it was lunchtime.
The woods were full, but quiet. Thick leaf litter drank the sounds, and trapped them in earthy holes amongst the ants and bugs and gentle decay. The decay was our friend, or at least our ally. We were after mushrooms; those spongy, bizarre, genital-like blooms that thrive amongst damp, fox shit and rot. They were our friends as well.
There were four of us. Weirdly, and beside the point, three of us were wearing skull rings. Hopefully this wasn’t an omen. Probably just some radical secret foragers club we were inadvertently a part of.
The Skull Gang Foragers Club. Forage Forev’s.
None of us actually had any experience with foraging, mushrooms or otherwise. Except for those ‘special’ kinds of mushrooms. I knew heaps about them.
We were sort of just hoping for the best. If it went wrong, if we ended up with something ominous like a Deathcap or Destroying Angel, there was a good chance we could spend the next week shitting our insides out.
So it goes without saying that we were prepared. We had a little illustrated guide to wild food in the UK, Food For Free by Richard Mabey, and a bottle of Austrian Honey Wine. You can’t be too prepared.
Things we didn’t have included:
- A Basket (we did have a Tesco bag. It had a hole)
- A knife
- Waterproof shoes
- Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s resident funghi expert, John Wright (the dude with the stealth ponytail)
Having said that, we were still of the belief that we were urban gods of self-sustainability, survivalism and general macho-naturalism.
Winter foraging isn’t really the dream. Most wild edibles are a spring/summer affair. Not so with mushrooms. Some mushrooms grow all year round, according to Mabey. And the deadly ones are less likely to be around in winter. Which sounded good to us. The night before had been ultra-moist, and this also seemed like a good thing. Mushrooms love moisture. Like snails.
We tried to avoid the usual paths. And the dog shit. Dog shit was everywhere. I had been telling everyone that the woods would be full of mushrooms. More than we could carry; more than we would want. It wasn’t until we were there, under the branches, amongst the holly and shouldn’t-be-awake squirrels that I realised we may have been overly hopeful. There wasn’t a toadstool to be seen.
From a quick flick through Food For Free the night before, we thought our best bet would be some Oysters (Pleurotus Ostreatus). They grow all year round, including the colder months, and are common in all woods on the trunks and stumps of deciduous trees. The other hope we had was the bizarrely named Jew’s Ear (Auricula Judae). It was hard to tell by the illustrations, but they looked to be red lumps that grew on rotting logs. Apparently they could freeze and defrost with no effect. I could no longer feel my fingers, so that was lucky.
Only a few mushrooms in the British Isles are deadly. Most are just inedible. Some are fine if cooked, but poisonous raw. Others look like edible varieties, but aren’t. The worst of the bunch, the Deathcap (Amanita Phalloides), and the Destroying Angel (Amanita Virosa) are in the same family and, luckily, share similar characteristics. The Deathcap is usually a pale olive green, while the Destroying Angel is pure white. Both should have a ring around the stem, and an egg like sack around the base. They do resemble a few edible species. The general rule of thumb is don’t eat anything unless it matches every identifying characteristic, and to check several different sources to be sure.
No one said it, but we all wanted to be the first to find something, poisonous or not. We gradually spread out, and every plastic bag or lightly coloured leaf triggered quick-fire toe prods and excited yelps. In the end Jo found the first lot. And the second. And third. She didn’t even want any mushrooms.
The first were sticky, orange and grew in a thick cluster. They had dark brown, almost black, velvety stems and looked like they would kill you. They were called Velvet Shanks (Flammulina Velutipes), and apparently they didn’t.
The second bunch literally blew my mind. They were Jew’s Ears, but they were more muddy brown than red, velvety (velvet seems like a good thing in mushrooms) and looked so fucking much like ears. So much. Heaps.
The last two we got looked like mushrooms, except with blue legs. I know what you’re thinking. Poison. But nope, they’re called Field Blewits (Lepista Saeva), and are apparently ace when cooked.
So, we got loads of mushrooms.
It took us four hours to work up the courage to eat them. We checked Food For Free, the internet, Food For Free, the internet, and the internet. We searched for poisonous mushrooms to compare them against. We told each other it would be fine, that they were good, that there was no doubt. We talked about how to cook them.
Eventually we did.
We made a tart with feta cheese, and cherry tomatoes.
We didn’t die.